The City of Absurdity The Straight Story
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Stubborn devotion to brother fueled journey
Trip to Wisconsin on lawn tractor made into a movie

By Peter Maller, Milwaukee Journal, October 22, 1999
with many thanks to Greg M.

Blue River - Before Jay Leno called, before the international press checked in and long before the movie crews showed up, the Straight name was already something of a legend here.

Richard Farnsworth appears in a scene from the Walt Disney Pictures' poignant drama, "The Straight Story."

Henry Straight milked goats on the kitchen table, insisted that neighbors join him for a glass of Jack Daniels at breakfast and filled his living room with dozens of live rabbits.

So when his 73-year-old brother Alvin rode a secondhand John Deere lawn tractor 240 miles to pay a visit, few around here were much surprised.

"I don't even know where to begin to describe them," said Fred Steiner, a beef cattle farmer who was Henry Straight's neighbor in this Grant County community for a dozen years. "I'll tell you this: Henry was a good-hearted fellow, but he did things his own way. Nobody could tell him otherwise."

Hollywood's top scriptwriters would be hard-pressed to invent a pair of fictional siblings as eccentric as these real-life brothers who became national folk heroes.

But Hollywood knows a good story when it sees one. The legend of Alvin and Henry has become "The Straight Story," a film critics have been gushing over since it first made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

David Lynch's movie, which opened in Milwaukee Friday, tells the story of Alvin Straight's iron-willed determination to make brotherly amends with Henry after learning Henry had suffered a stroke. The cast of the G-rated film includes Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight, Harry Dean Stanton as Henry (renamed Lyle in the movie) and Sissy Spacek as Alvin Straight's daughter, Rose.

The real Henry Straight died about a year ago. Alvin died in 1996, and the movie is dedicated to him.

But, those who knew them say, their stories would have lived after them even if the movie had never been made.

Family That Rides Together
Using a lawn mower as a means of transportation was nothing new in the Straight family.

For years, Henry was known to arrive at his favorite tavern driving a lawn mover of his own. Henry's wife, June, sometimes rode at his side on a matching mower he had purchased for her.

"I remember one time they both went on their mowers to visit a neighbor who lived three or four miles from here," Steiner recalled. "But just before they got there, June ran out of gas. So Henry drove all the way back to their house to get some.

"And guess what happened? Just before he got home, he ran out of gas, too."

The Straights did things their own way.
"I remember June for having the cleanest white laundry you've ever seen," Steiner said of his former neighbor. "She would hang it on the line and it was the prettiest sight. But then that horse would always come through swishing its tail, getting mud all over it."

June and Henry's son, Dane, landed a job with an auctioneer when he was a teenager. When the auctioneer had leftover goods at the end of the day, "most of the stuff, chairs and such, went for just $1 or $2 each (at auction)," Steiner recalled. "I guess Dane just couldn't resist the prices. He'd buy just about everything that was left over, and bring it home." The property became strewn with broken refrigerators, washing machines, threadbare tires.

Trouble on the Way
When it came to Alvin Straight's long-distance tractor trip, the stubborn independence of the Straight family kept him on his course, even though numerous times along the way, his journey came close to unraveling.

His solitary trip started in Laurens, Iowa. In West Bend, Iowa, just 21 miles away, his mower broke down. He spent $250 to fix the engine and left town virtually penniless.

By the time he reached Charles City, Iowa, 90 miles east of the mower's first mechanical calamity, Straight was out of money, and made his only call to his wife. He spent part of a month waiting for his Social Security check to catch up with him.

Instead of staying at motels along the route, he slept in a 10-foot makeshift camper he pulled behind his mower.

But neither gusts of 18-wheelers, which rocked his mower as he drove along highway shoulders, nor frequent mechanical problems, nor pelting rain could keep him from his appointed destination.

Creeping toward Wisconsin at 5 mph, Alvin was determined to see his brother.

An Unexpected Guest
As Alvin's trip continued, he received assistance from all sorts of people. When his slow-moving vehicle created a traffic jam outside Prairie du Chien, he got a police escort, an incident dramatized in the movie.

Another incident that made the movie's final cut was Alvin's stop in a local tavern not far from his destination.

"He stopped here to ask directions and to get a couple of beers," said Merrit O'Kane, owner of Mt. Zion Bar in Mt. Zion, an unincorporated community of fewer than a dozen families. It's 4 miles west of where Henry lived.

Henry Straight was one of O'Kane's best customers, so the barkeep had no problem giving directions to his house.

"After he found out Henry's location, he got back on his mower and drove off," O'Kane said.

By this time, media attention surrounding the long-distance lawn mower ride was building. But Henry apparently was caught by surprise.

June recalled the moment:

"I saw him coming down the road, and I shouted to my husband, 'There's a lawn mower coming this way, and I think your brother Alvin is riding it.' "

To hear her tell it today, her brother-in-law's odyssey was nothing special.

"Alvin was happy just as long as he had meat and potatoes for supper," she said. "He wasn't much trouble. He slept out in his trailer mostly."

Alvin stayed three weeks with his brother, then hitched a ride home with a nephew - the tractor that had taken him there was spent.

Road to Fame
The story was reported in newspapers as far away as South Africa and Australia. Alvin turned down invitations to appear on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "The Late Show with David Letterman."

"They offered to fly me or put me in a train, but they're not going to put me in a plane or a box car to go to California or New York," he told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1994.

Although he shunned the limelight, he didn't shun a little gain for his troubles. Paul Condit, a John Deere dealer who owned three stores in Texas, saw Alvin's tale on television and offered him a brand-new riding mower if he'd trade in his beat-up model.

Alvin, who's portrayed in the movie as something of a horse trader, took him up on the offer. It's not like he was attached to the old one, he told the Sentinel at the time.

"I just bought it for the trip," he said.

Hollywood Hitches a Ride
Soon after Alvin stopped at his tavern in Mt. Zion, O'Kane was visited by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, two writers from Madison.

Sweeney, who divides her time between homes in Wisconsin and California, was Lynch's editor on "Twin Peaks" and edited and produced his feature films "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," "Blue Velvet," "Wild at Heart" and "Lost Highway."

When she heard about Alvin and Henry's story, she was smitten.

She also thought: screenplay.

Along with Roach, a fellow writer-producer as well as a close friend from childhood, she set out to retrace Alvin's odyssey. Which brought them to the Mt. Zion Bar, with its knotty pine paneling, pool table and plethora of brewery memorabilia.

The bar wound up with a featured role in "The Straight Story."

If O'Kane sees the movie, nothing in it is likely to compete with his memory of the last time he saw Henry.

"He had been deer hunting, and he shot this little doe and he was as proud as anything," O'Kane recalled. "But you know how you're supposed to wear blaze orange when you hunt, how it's the law? Well, Henry dressed the way he wanted. He didn't care about the law. He was wearing an old pair of green army pants and a red shirt.

"That's the way he was."


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